#Identity. Are we (the industry) the problem?

How many people do you need before identity has value - two! How come, as an industry where 3.2bn (McKinsey) people have a digital identity, are we so fragmented, uncoordinated and disagreeable? 

It is evident that our ongoing discussions about identity, ethics, bias, privacy and consent revolve around a lot of noise (opinions) but little signal (alignment), but why?  Recognising that in 30 years of digital identity, we still lack coherent and coordinated action to make it work for everyone is a reality. Perhaps it is time to recognise that it is “us”, the industry, who are the problem.  We continue in our self confirming opinions, righteous products and determination to win at all costs.  I am not saying we have not made progress or done amazing things, but we have not done as well as we should have!

As identity now takes several forms insomuch that it emerges from interactions with a system (say payment & reputation), is foundational (given by an authority, a credential), and we can create our own (Self Soverign Identity [SSI]), we are more divided than ever on what we should build on, but have we got it totally wrong. This article gives some New thinking to rattle us. 

We (anyone in identity, privacy, consent, digital space) are unlikely to like reading this. I am aware the responses are unlikely to be favourable, positive or constructive; because this is hard. The learning and takeaway, in the end, draws from a different market, who have solved how to act as one, even though they did not align.


I am first unpacking the current status.

What happens when the user (human) is not the connector?

We live in a digital age that is utterly dependent on the complex connectivity of systems, and in all but one case, the integrated communication path requires the centricity to be on a company, government body, product or service; except for personal identity, privacy and consent that remain focussed on an individual human. 

Identity (all forms) is a function of context based on relationships. Identity exists between the two poles of emergent ID (from system and interactions), functional ID (a credential given to us by an authority) and with an individual (in the case of personal identity) being the connecting point. The dependencies between these solutions mean that our “identity data” rests in government, organisations, companies and individual domains.

Identity in this context

Identity includes everything that you can imagine: who you think you are, passport, ID, login, email, IP address, messages, census data, birth record, photos, friends, education, work, conversations, experience, travel, reputation, scars, memories, health, heart rate, blood pressure, medication, family tree, skin, DNA, parents, heritage, analysis, habits, rules, content, culture, who you identify as - everything yesterday, today and tomorrow that identify you as you and that makes you unique.  

Functional or Foundational Identity

I am keeping it broad & straightforward. Passport, birth certification, diving licence, DNA, sovereign ID, company ID and anything given to you by someone who has command and control (a credential.)  Foundational Identity has governance and oversight about who issues the foundational identity, and therefore they are classed as an "authoritative source." 

Foundational “hard” ID is given, but from it rises many softer identities (identifications) that are all built from having a foundation.  If we had an unbreakable lineage and provenance to back identification from identity, it might help; but there are unintended consequences we have to face. 

Pause and Reflection

We know something is broken in the functional ID model as my identity is me, who I am, what drives me, experience; it is not my passport but where the passport took me and the experiences I gained there.  We know some don’t have the foundations of identification, but they have an identity.  Your foundation identity does not define who you are.


Definition: Emergence is where the properties or behaviours only emerge when components or parts interact as part of a whole inclusive system. 

Emergence Identity

An identity that forms because you interact with systems.  Your made-up email address enables someone to know where you live, what you buy, when you shop, who you shop for.  Your preferences and actions identify you.  This identity emerges not because you have a trusted bank account to pay but because you interact, your reputation.  Your passport allows and enables interactions.  The more we interact in a complex digital world, the more emergent identities we have. 

Emergence is usually hidden insofar that IP address providers or payment transaction analysis systems could be judged as emergent identity creators. We as individuals do not control them or have visibility of the data (dark/ hidden). It is very much a debate if consent is needed and/ or if the creator (the user) should have this data under their control.  Open Banking could be seen as one of the first emergent identity systems that do give the user some control.

If emergent identity had strong governance and oversight, it might also become like a Functional Identity.

We have to accept our identity is more than the sum.

The diagram below is based on a polarity model.  Unlike a linear or value chain model, there is no one universal starting point or final destination.  As we discover the value and limitations of the two principle identity models, we recognise that we continually move around the model, never settling at one place or outcome but learning and improving both.  However, given the boundaries and limitations of each, we need both to be successful.  

The purpose of functional and emergence ID is to determine where you start the journey.

There is a deep dependency. 

Without foundational, I cannot access emergent; without emergent, I cannot gain value from foundational. If I cannot gain/ get a foundational identity, emergent identity enables me to start, barter/ trade and protect myself.  Emergence can be a lifeline to getting a foundational identity. 

Companies, organisations and governments believe that control of your identity is critically important. They call it identity to ensure you are not aware if it is emergent or foundational.  They (well, we the industry) will use one to create the other and cause confusion.  

Where does SSI (self-sovereign identity) fit?

Ignoring the name and all those issues, SSI is not emergent ID or functional/ foundational ID, but our agent for identity. SSI is a decentralized model for digital identity based on an entity’s control over forming and using cryptographically secured digital connections (using DIDs) and accepting and presenting digitally signed credentials (VCs). It applies as much to organizations and IoT as individuals. (thanks @DrummondReed)

SSI has made me realise that we have created different onboarding positions and propositions, not different approaches to identity.  

SSI could be seen as a new model for providing functional ID that has interesting possibilities for helping with some aspects of emergent ID. But no technology can fully emulate the qualities of emergent ID.

But what does this mean?

There is a deep desire to want the best of all worlds without realising or recognising the separation and interdependence. We debate and argue about transparency, data sharing, ontology requirements, privacy by design, consent driven, control, value, power, and much more in wanting the best.  

Given we cannot have a form of identity without the other, how can we cycle faster to co-create better solutions with the best aspects of both? But recognise that consent works well for foundational identity but is hopeless for emergent. Privacy can protect foundational ID, but not emergent.  

The linkage is us, the human, today, but should we be the link?

Right now, it is the individual who connects the different domains of personal identity.  Without you and your needs to trade, barter, work, play - these domains would not need connecting.  We create and need connections and are the connector.  We may be lucky enough to have a foundational ID at birth, but for a digital life, we need both.  We are the connection until death when they will slowly separate again as emergent ID is no longer needed, but a link can continue.   

Mapping some solutions

Below is the polarity map of identity with SSI, SOLID, yoti, and Vouch added. Why have I only picked these from the 100+ solutions, because I want others to place where they are.  The placements are the starting positions for onboarding, the value proposition to get onto the identify loop.  It is not where they stay or add the most value; it is day zero, what problem is solved and why you should join. I am likely to have in-correctly positioned them, so if you feel they are wrong, please identify a better place.  The message is that we all start as different places to solve the same problem.  But what we do is continually confuse everyone and ensure that we disagree on what identity means or what it is for.  We hold fast to our “best in class” solution, our product and our personal beliefs with conformational bias. 

Who has solved the same problem before?

An insight for us (the identity industry) comes from an unlikely source. Time to look at the green movement, global warming and climate change.  Back in the 1960s, when protests against nuclear power and arms were in full swing, we also marched for: save the whales, save the endangered species, save the newt, save the planet, save humanity, save the tigers, save the elephants, save the orangutans and many more.   On a march or protest, there were a few to hundred and the occasional thousand.  Co-ordinated marches across the globe in different cities swelled the number on a specific topic march.  During the 80’s “Feed the World” raised millions of pounds for a cause, famine in Africa.  When acting as one - we can start to create change.

At some point, something interesting happened.  Individuals connected their ecosystem crisis to another, more significant, crisis.  It was bigger than a connection; it was a cause.  The small marches against an effect could start to see there was a more significant cause.  Global warming and climate change bought together those focusing on local protests through loss of habitat to match together as one voice as their loss resulted from a cause. Save the Whales would not join a save the newt but can walk side by side on Climate Change.  Climate change was not a march but a “co-opted” group from thousands of different factions fighting for their own passion, purpose or love.  Many voices became one and retained their own passion. 

Identity has many factions, many voices, many causes, many definitions and many solutions.  We continue to define, redefine and demand our “xxx” of identity as the one usually because it is the model we want as we will benefit. 

Our big and unifying issue is to recognise that corporates, especially big tech and government, have no interest in one identity and indeed would find ways to ensure it remains factions and uncoordinated unless they are the single controller. They will sponsor and support many programs, many solutions and keep the divisions going, playing a game. Single identity would likely also render Facebook and media companies, with their advertising model unworkable - so not all big tech want a solution! Division works.

Perhaps the lesson here is that we should stop fighting for our own version of identity (privacy, ethics, consent), for our own definitions, for our own implementations, for our own solutions, for our own products and start to think about acting like one. Each of us swallows some pride, eats some ego and finds ways to behave as one industry voice, one team who cares together as we have passion, purpose and heart to solve identity problems for everyone.

The railway, automobile and aero industries across the world have made it work. Building different gauge infrastructures to different standards but eventually learning that together they thrive when they stopped wanting aligned infrastructures and found a way to ensure users could access and use it all. 

If you disagree, share this and say why. If you agree, share this, so we talk about it at our meeting places.  If you're an influencer, reflect to see if we are the problem. If you organise events, why not make time to lead this debate?  


This article has been in formation for some 18 months. It had no direction or lacked sense at points, and through perseverance, friends, and discussion, it has become what it is today.  Many have shaped the thinking.